John Heilig was one of Canada’s leading voices on ski jumping and Nordic combined, but after a day of working on the Beijing 2022 Olympic venue, he died suddenly.
“He’d been working hard on the hill all day,” said Tim Gayda, a former colleague and friend of Heilig’s. “Something happened at dinner, and unfortunately he sort of stopped breathing.”
He said the cause of Heilig’s death isn’t yet known, but it may have been a heart attack.
“It was just devastating,” Gayda said. “I think that everyone who knows him, worked around him, worked for him or managed him, was really a pleasure.”
The news has been a shock to the entire Nordic combined and ski jumping world, but especially to his family, who were counting down the days until his scheduled return. He leaves behind a wife and five kids.
“We miss him terribly,” said his wife, Kelly. “There’s a gaping hole in our hearts that will never be patched, so it’s really, really hard to know our lives have changed forever and he’ll never be with us.”
She and her husband moved to the Sunshine Coast in 2018, into the house they’d built for their retirement.
“His way of really connecting with the kids and, you know, with me, was outdoor fun, outdoor adventures,” she said. “Being his family, you know, we kind of forgot what a big deal he was in the ski world from time to time.”
John Furlong, who was in charge of the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Games told CTV News Heilig “was a real warrior for the sport in Canada.”
Part of the proof of his success, explained Furlong, was that every day sold out during the Vancouver games. He added after Heilig’s work on the venue at the Whistler Olympic Park, Heilig went on to lead the teams building venues in Sochi, Peyongchang, and Beijing.
“Sports tend to produce giants,” said Furlong. “Ski jumping and Nordic combined, at the time we were organizing the bid and the games, (Heilig) was their giant. He was that one voice. He was the soul of the sport. He was that one guy that just would not lie down.”
Gayda created a GoFundMe page for the family to help bring Heilig home, which has led to tributes pouring in from far and wide.
“He was always smiling; he was always finding the best of every situation,” said Egon Theiner, who worked with Heilig in Sochi ahead of the Olympics. “He really left a huge impact on an objective level on the sport – on Nordic combined and ski jumping. But even more, he left an impact on, I think, everybody of us who was in contact with him.”
Nathaniel Mah started ski jumping at the age of six and said Heilig was a huge part of his career.
“We’re such a small part of that sport, but to have a Canadian kind of guiding and teaching other nations on how to put on an event is always really, really inspiring for all of us, to have someone like John,” said Mah. “He was always just super generous, super kind.”
“We were kind of counting the days for him to come home,” said Kelly. “It would be, like, 12 days or something from the last time we talked to him.”
“He gave his life to try and develop the sport and I wish it was a little bit easier on him, to be honest,” she added.
Kelly said her five kids are not ski jumpers or Nordic combined athletes, but they all started learning to ski as soon as they could walk and Heilig connected best with his family while being outside.
“He was the person always dragging people out, like, ‘Oh, it’s 10 o’clock at night, who wants to go down to swim?’” she said. “It was so fun and he was the instigator, he was Mr. Fun, 100 per cent.”
She said the tributes flooding in have brought great comfort to her family.
“I had 35 years with him and that’s a good chunk of my life. And I’m just so grateful and our kids love him so much … He’s had a huge impact on their lives too.”